A Son's Point of View
The History of The Mount Savage Works is getting some recognition finally and I won't presume to any undocumented knowledge about the Union Mining Company and its predecessors, but I do think I can add some interesting history of our family's tenure as Mount Savage Refractories Co.
My Dad Andrew John Rost (A.J.) came to Roberdau Green Annan's Action sale of the Union Mining assets in and around Mount Savage in 1944.
He and Sam Frazee (another lumberman) had heard there was some 5000 acres of timberland that was to be part of the sale and that was all they were interested in. Sam picked my dad up in Somerset with his Cadillac and they arrived together.
During the sale of the Brick Works, and air compressor came up and Sam needed one so he Bid it in. Shortly after, several men came up to them and said they had a group that was bidding and didn't want anybody bidding them up. They offered some cash to stop bidding. That made Sam mad and he told them he'd do what he wanted and was going to bid everything up. He then proceeded to do so, being high bidder every time.
After the account started to get up, the auctioneer stopped the auction and asked them on the side how they were going to pay for everything. Sam said cash and the auctioneer said he didn't know them and didn't want their check. Sam said he said cash and at the look of disbelief, took him to his car, opened the trunk, and showed him a trunk of cash. The auctioneer told him to shut the trunk quickly and said if the bidding group inside knew what was there they might not get out of town alive. They then proceeded to buy everything else-including the brickyard. At the end of the day, Sam drove my dad back to Somerset. Dad thought he was going home, but Sam drove back to Mount Savage.
Sam spent the weekend in Mount Savage and asked everybody he could find about the brickyard. The consensus was that is worn out, stripped of any good machinery for Annan's new Grantsville plant, and would probably lose money no matter what. On Monday morning Sam came to Dad's office and said he has second thoughts and didn't want to stray from lumber and would dad buy his share. He did, although he had no idea of what he was going to do with a brickyard.
Hid first problem was that Green Annan had left some decent equipment to entice a higher price. He started immediately to move it to Grantsville. Some one called my dad in Pittsburgh about it and he had to get a lawyer to get Annan to stop, but a lot was already gone. He sued to get it back but really didn't know what all was gone. He won
Because (Green Annan was drunk at the time of the trial and his lawyer was afraid to get him to testify) but he only got a few items back.
The work crew at the brickyard was afraid the plant was not going to reopen and urged my dad to make brick. They told him if they had just the basics, they could make the plant go. The war was ending and the government was encouraging the production of building materials so homes could be built for returning veterans. Although the presses required for refractory brick were gone, my dad found an old extruder and went into the production of building brick. The grinding equipment was adaptable, so all the needed was dryers to get the moisture out before firing (building brick are cut from an extruded column of clay that has about 13% moisture. Pressed brick only has about 6% moisture and can be fried in the kiln). The men built a crude form of dryer without plans of any kind, but it worked to some extent.
The government was paying a subsidiary if a plant could increase production. The plant went into high gear and was turning out a lot of brick. Dad wasn't selling many. In those days people wanted even colored, nicely formed brick and the plant was existing on the subsidiary. Funds got very tight and he was always short on payroll. To make it, he had an agreement with the main street bar owners, where almost all the men cashed their checks. There were five bars and each had a day of the week they could deposit the checks. It was a rotating schedule, so fair to everyone. It gave a few extra days to cover the payroll.
Bricks were piling up all over town. They were warped, cracked, and of various shades of red. Dad was worried he had made a big mistake and was using the lumber profits to keep the brickyard working.
One day a man walked into his Pittsburgh office and asked what he was going to do with al those bad bricks. Dad admitted he didn't know and the man offered him a low price but would take them all. A deal was made. The man was the developer of Silver Spring, Maryland and wanted brick that looked like colonial time brick (warped, cracked, and of various shaded). Dads were perfect.
The work crew had been fixing up and old obsolete "Berg" dry press Annan had left as junk. They admitted they weren't great at building bricks but told my dad to make firebrick. He figured he might not get lucky twice so told them to go ahead. The extruder was shut down.
Somewhere along about then he opened the old clay mines at Barrelville and must have acquired another one or two old presses. He figured what each press should make a day and never seemed to get to
full production. The excuse was always that they were out of clay, but the miners were paid by the ton and his figures showed more than enough clay. One day he went unannounced to the mines and found everyone lounging around and the clay cars tallied as bull but 2/3 empty. The mines were closed that day and he bought stripped clay from that day on.
Expenses were way too high. When he would inquire about certain purchases, the superintendent would say they were necessary to brick plants. Dad was trying to run things from his lumber office in Pittsburgh and had trust in the superintendent. Somehow he heard that an apartment building near the plant was being built with company materials. Now he needed a new plant manager.
Firebrick was a very competitive commodity in the 50's and 60's. The low end of this commodity was residential fireplace brick; the one product the big companies didn't bother with, usually. Dad was a great salesman and went on the road. He hooked up with standard clay products out of Philadelphia to make brick with their brand on them. They distributed to masonry yards through out the east coast. He also sold other distributors brick with his "Maryland" brand or "MRC" brand (size determining which was which). He had industrial sales as well (notably J&L Steel). But some of the higher grade sales were sent to Osceola Firebrick, a plant he acquired in the early 60's in Osceola, PA., because of the clay quality there.
Refractories were cyclical with steel. When steel was slow, the refractory plants tried dumping product on the residential market. Fortunately, dad's customers mainly stuck with him although he often sold at a loss to keep them.
As less and less brick went out by rail, trucks too over, but trucks were hard to get in Mount Savage, so dad bought some for both brick and lumber. He had some great drivers and despite running empty half the time, he probably didn't lose much trucking his brick because they took good care of his equipment. His customers loved it because delivery wasn't reliant on a third party. However, dad was a lumberman first and a brick man second. Lumber deliveries came first (they were more profitable). Many are the time when he would call around quitting time to say a load of lumber had to be delivered the next morning. The office manager, Ida Pressman, would say the trailers were all loaded with Brick. He would then tell her to unload one right away, no matter what, and deliver lumber.
Mrs. Pressman was feisty and outspoken and in my mind, "bigger than life". One story that's vivid in my mind although I wasn't there was precipitated by the strike the men went on that I think occurred in the fifties. It went on for weeks and got pretty ugly. John Lewis' United Mine Workers District was the bargaining unit then and their representative and my dad did not see eye to eye. He made dad mad, something that took a lot but wasn't to be taken lightly. Dad wasn't about to submit to the union's demands.
After one of the later meetings that always took place in the old Union Mining Office on Foundry Row, the men on hearing that the strike was to continue, gathered outside and yelled threats and insults to dad, who was still there talking with Mrs. Pressman. He wanted to leave but wasn't sure he could get past the men to his car. When he expressed his fears, Mrs. Pressman grabbed her umbrella and told him to follow her. She went out and told the agitated men to make way or she'd hit them on the head. Dad followed her to his car untouched.
Mrs. Pressman ran the office, but really the company. If sales were slow, she'd make calls. If a load got rejected, she'd find another buyer so it didn't have to come back. She handled a lot of the complaints. She also believed in good finance and when dad needed money for some new speculation, he'd come and try to get some company money form Mrs. Pressman with offending her sense of good economics. In many ways she was responsible for what success the company had. It was a hard day when my dad retire her to at 86. She had been getting orders mixed up mainly because she wouldn't turn up her hearing aid and customers were getting pretty vocal about loads they hadn't ordered, or about where was their brick? Upon her retirement, Lois Cessna, who for many years was Mrs. Pressman's assistant, took over the office and smoothly continued those duties, putting our customers to rest.
Joe Lilly was the machinist when dad started up the brick yard and the after the apartment house fiasco, was made plant manager. Joe was hones and conscientious and knew brick. He and Mrs. Pressman made a good team. Joe retired about 1980.
The plant was originally fired with coal. I think it was in the fifties that a young fellow named McGee came to sell us on converting from coal to natural gas. He wanted to prove that gas was a better choice so he offered to convert one kiln and to supervise a firing. There was little to lose so he was given the go ahead. When the kiln was fired and the cooling had progressed to where the door could be unbricked, my dad came over to see how it looked. Well, the bricks were perfect, all hard and nearly white. Dad couldn't believe it and ordered all the kilns to be converted. McGee went to eventually be President of Columbia Gas and we never had a kiln that good again.
The plant utilized periodic kilns that were hand set, fired, cooled, and unloaded by hand. The lost heat of each firing was expensive and was making us less competitive with tunnel kiln plants that kept a constant temperature as cars loaded with brick were pushed through. The periodic kiln plants were closing pretty fast. Sometime in the last 60's or very early 70's Dad bought the master equipment of the General Refractories, Morrisville, PA, plant. It was a fairly modem tunnel kiln plant but General was the first of the big refractory companies to go into hard times and they broke the unwritten rule of the big companies. "Don't sell equipment to small companies". Up to then, Harbison-Walker, A.P. Green, General, Kaiser, and North American, would scrap equipment, rather than sell to to a small competitor. General needed cash so we bought 2 good presses, some mixing equipment, and a complete tunnel kiln.
Mt. Savage had a tunnel kiln. It was built in the thirties and had been stripped to the point that it was a brick shell. It had been fired on No. 6 oil (a thick, basic grade) but after an explosion, was never re-fired. It was dad's thought to rebuild to with parts from Morrisville.
Other than selling brick every summer while in school, stripping Morrisville was my first job as a brick man. The plant was down with the electric cut off. Joe sent his maintenance man and some helpers and we got a motel near the plant that changed tenants every hour or so. For weeks we stripped the kiln, etc. and loaded empty brick trucks for Mount Savage. The maintenance man Clyde Arnold, I think, must have know his stuff because we loaded some big equipment with just a forklift. We stripped the kiln including the cars inside. It was dark in that kiln and under the rails was a pit about 5 feet deep. To push a car you had to step from tie to tie by fell (no lights) for several hundred feet. Why no- injuries, I'll never know; those ties were about 3 feet apart.
Joe knew gas was killing us and we talked about firing with oil. The problem was that oil was sky high as well. But because the kiln was initially to be fired on #6 oil, there were tanks on site. However, our Morrisville oil burners were for a thin oil, like #2 (diesel).
One of the tanks on site had a fair amount of #6 in it. Joe thought if we ran lines along side the kiln burners the excess lost heat would heat them and thin the oil enough to go through the burners. It worked better then we had expected so we didn't want to stop when the tank ran out. I started hunting for oil that would work yet was cheap. It turns out there is an asphalt grade oil that is a reclaimed oil derivative that is cheap and we had it shipped from wherever we could find it. Sometimes I don't know what we got - some shaky looking trucks
made a few midnight deliveries- but it got us by until natural gas fell to the affordable mark, about 2 years later. It was a relief to me when we went back to gas. Every time I walked past those lines being heated from our kilns radiation and burners excess heat, I wondered just how hot there were, or could get without rupturing or exploding.
There was one other piece of equipment in the plant that should be mentioned. In 1931, McClanahan of Hollidaysburg, PA, sold Union Mining a 10" dry pan. It may have been the only one sold but was certainly the only one running 50 years later. only was a monster that really put out tonnage. Most plants use a crusher for hard clay of rejects and then size in the dry pan. The cars were of a different gauge than our Mount Savage kiln. Re-welding and modifying the axle's to roll on our tracks was no small job. There were about 130 cars. The whole project took a couple of years. In 1974 (I think) the "modernization" was finished but it was some time before any decent brick were made. The "new" presses and mixing equipment worked fine but the kiln, particularly the modified kiln cars, was a source for constant problems. A new kiln may have been cheaper and certainly more economical to run.
In the early 80's we had an energy crisis like today. Natural gas shot way up and plants closed because of the price of fuel. If dad hadn't spent so much on his "new" plant he would have too. As it was, he sent me to alternate fuel plants down south to see if pulverized coal or sawdust would work for us. He wanted to borrow from some venture capitalists who would take an interest in the plant until they were paid back. I was impressed with the alternate fuels. But they all had a feature that scared me, they had to be kept so clean as to be almost sterile or they were subject to sudden external ignition or explosion. To convert our old facility to that standard, and our men to that culture, seemed improbable. I always thought dad would go ahead anyway, but maybe he silently agreed.
On Joe Lilly's pending retirement, Dad hired Joe Leach of Frostburg to run the plant. Joe had spent years at the Zihlman Plant and was a good brick man and a savvy plant manager.
Our McClanahan did it all, crushing and grinding. I took it for granted while it was running, but wasn't at Zihlman to long before it was really missed. (The two pans at the Zihlman Plant (a 9' and a 10'). Together seem unable to grind the tonnage that old McClanahan would put out, and Zihlman has a crusher too!
On October 20, 1986, we made the last brick in Mount Savage. The Kaiser Plant at Zihlman, had been for sale for some time, but other Kaiser Plants had stripped items from it needed by them. We were the only logical buyer because what it needed to go into production we had at Mount Savage. After we bought it we spent over a year getting it ready to run. And by mid 1986 it was ready. After over 140 years of operation, the plant at Mount Savage was closed.
My Dad, A.J., was quite a guy. He came from the south side of Pittsburgh, the oldest son of a machinist in a steel plant. His family wanted him to work in the mill right out of high school. But he wanted to go to college, so he started working and went to school at the same time. The job that influenced his future the most was with the Lance Kendall Lumber Company, which he basically ran for the Kendall's when the family officer's seemed disinterested. It gave him the confidence to start his own company, The Republic Lumber co., which he ran while attending law school and thereafter until his death.
Business was Dad's passion. He loved to speculate and the Mount Savage purchase was a good example.